Argentinian Narrative 101: The Voice of The Gaucho
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
Argentinian Narrative 101: The Voice of The Gaucho
The Gaucho is the habitant of the Argentinian countryside. He has an extreme expertise in handling horses and in all herding exercises. He is usually poor, but free and independent. He is a rural person with few needs. Thanks to Argentinian literature, the Gaucho was able to have a voice. This genre by which his figure could be made known is the Gaucho Genre, which, above all, is a poetic genre. It has gone through censorship due to certain prejudices of its time. His poetry format was portrayed in songs through payada, a form of improvisation of verses with a guitar, and passed through authors with diverse political ideologies. From the stories of travelers who encountered the figure of the gaucho to the book which is now a national icon, Martin Fierro, today the gaucho poetry has managed to go from being excluded from cultural circles to being a fundamental principle of Argentinian national identity.
Figure 1: On The Road. Prilidiano Puyrredón. 1861.
As explained by Pedro Luis Barcía in his article Introduction to Gauchesca Literature, the gaucho is hospitable on his ranch. He is a person full of intelligence and craftiness. He is above all agile in body, short on words, energetic and prudent in his actions. Very cautious in communicating with strangers, poetic and superstitious in his beliefs and language, and extraordinarily adept at traveling alone through the vast deserts of the country, procuring food, horses, and so on with only his lasso (Barcia, 2001).
The origin of the gaucho characters goes back to the epic. Works such as The Odyssey or The Iliad by Homer are the first founders of a genre that unites music, theater and poetry, whose protagonists are brave people and heroes willing to fight. The relationship of the gauchesco with the musical element gives rise to the payadores. The voice of the payador and his payada (meaning, respectively, troubadour and tension) are extremely important to understand how gaucho literature is narrated. The payadas consisted of contests improvised by the troubadours where the payadores tried, alternating, to show off in duels. The payadores represent what could be called the "heroic age" of Creole poetry. They began with improvised songs by the peasant troubadours of the Creole generations of the colony and continued with the 19th century gauchos. It was in that century when the figure of the gaucho appeared in Argentina and his peculiarity lay in his wandering nature and his status as a fugitive from justice. These were the attributes that originated, in a certain way, "the legend of the gaucho" and in all the literature that has had him as a protagonist.
Figure 2: Rosas's Soldier. Raymond Auguste Quinsac de Monvoisin. 1842.
The first literary references regarding the figure of the gaucho can be found in the stories of some travelers, but the first important essay about his idiosyncrasy is El Facundo by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. In it, the gaucho is pointed out as the main culprit of the cultural backwardness that grips the country's development. Sarmiento is a controversial figure in Argentine history due to his problematic ideas about education and the access that low-income people would have to it. But after El Facundo, and with almost thirty years of difference, the portrait of the gaucho that will end up being the protagonist of the genre is José Hernández's Martín Fierro.
The Martin Fierro is the Argentinian national classic. This book established the foundations for what would later become the country's literature and history. The renowned author Jorge Luis Borges, in his book Prologue of Prologues, wrote: “Martín Fierro is a very well written and very poorly read book. Hernández wrote it to show that the War Ministry made the gaucho a deserter and a traitor. Leopoldo Lugones proposed it as an archetype. Now we suffer the consequences” (Borges, 1944, p 14). Thirty years later, Borges added a postscript to that comment, “The choice of the Argentinians is already known. If instead of canonizing Martín Fierro, we had canonized El Facundo as our exemplary book, our history would be different and it would be better” (Borges, 1974, p.15).
Jorge Luis Borges shared political ideology with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in terms of his right-wing militancy, which is why his proposal to take El Facundo as an example of the gaucho as a national icon is not surprising. Leopoldo Lugones, to whom Borges refers, was an Argentine polymath. Gisela Mattioni in her article The Payador of Leopoldo Lugones explained that, in a series of conferences, Lugones proclaimed Martín Fierro as an emblem of the formation of the Argentine spirit and the figure of the gaucho as a paradigm of nationality (Mattioni, 2008).
Figure 3: Bowling Ñandues. Alfonso Durand. 1866.
Martín Fierro sings through his payadas for those defeated by the Pro-British oligarchy of the time. The essential meaning of Martín Fierro is its truthfulness. The play is about a gaucho who is going to payar (sing), with his guitar, the adventures he has gone through with his partner Cruz. At the beginning, he emphasizes "There is no imitation here./This is pure reality./And I will start by asking/Do not doubt what I say,/Well, the witness must be believed/If they do not pay for lying" (Hérnandez, 1872, p.1). In this way Hernández seals a contract with the readers, guaranteeing the honesty of this narrative poem.
Born on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, José Hernández became the greatest exponent of gaucho literature and the father of Argentinian literature. Most of his writings were published in various newspapers founded by himself. In 1872 he published the work that was to consecrate the gaucho genre: Martín Fierro. The work was an immediate success with eleven reprints in just six years. Apart from the undoubted literary value, the importance of this work lies in having converted a marginal character in Argentinian society at the time, into the main representative of an alleged "Argentinian canon". Freedom and justice as thematic knots, the deliberately careless style, the tone of complaint and the popular language (sentences, proverbs, orality traits, etc.) made Hernández's work a true sociocultural phenomenon, which was to elevate his character to the category of myth.
Seven years later, in 1879, Hernández published The Return of Martín Fierro. In the text, it is the author himself who insists on the values that he considers to be the main values of his work: the universality of the character and the popular nature of the poem. The gaucho's only teacher is the splendid nature that spreads out before his eyes in varied and majestic panoramas. Meanwhile, he sings about it, because there is a certain moral impulse in him that takes him to the point where all his proverbs are expressed in verses.
Figure 4: The Singing of Martin Fierro. Carlos Roume. 2017.
Both El Facundo and Martín Fierro and the gaucho genre continue to function as a great matrix, as a great machine of meaning for Argentinian social literature. The Gaucho literature has a characteristic of homogeneity, it is compact, as if it were a united plot, which, although it varies over time, is very difficult to distinguish, since the style is of unbreakable unity, a superstructure. Above all, the link that unites the gaucho with nature stands out in a kind of "psychocosmic parallelism", where there is a superior force that unites this character with everything that has to do with the rural. Gauchesca literature was then a certain literary style of a specific social group which was given room to exist and prevail as an icon of Argentinian narrative.
Barcia, P.L. (2001). Literatura Gauchesca. Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. Retrieved from: https://www.cervantesvirtual.com/nd/ark:/59851/bmc1r6q2
Borges, J.L. (1988). Prólogo de Prólogos. Buenos Aires. Ediciones Nepeus.
Hérnandez, J. (1872). Martin Fierro. Buenos Aires. Imprenta de La Pampa.
Mattioni, G. (2008). El Payador de Leopoldo Lugones. Universidad Nacional de Rosario. Retrieved from: https://rephip.unr.edu.ar/handle/2133/16779
Figure 1: Puyrredón, P. (1861). On The Road. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.cervantesvirtual.com/portales/literatura_gauchesca/imagenes_album/imagen/imagenes_album_03_en_el_camino_puyrredon_1861/
Figure 2: Quinsac de Monvoisin, R.A. (1842). Rosas's Soldier. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.cervantesvirtual.com/portales/literatura_gauchesca/imagenes_album/imagen/imagenes_album_01_soldado_de_rosas_quinsac_1842/
Figure 3: Durand, A. (1866). Bowling Ñandues. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.cervantesvirtual.com/portales/literatura_gauchesca/imagenes_album/imagen/imagenes_album_07_boleando_nandues_durand_1866/
Figure 4: Roume, C. (2017). The Singing of Martin Fierro. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: http://www.revista.unsj.edu.ar/?p=3411