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Argentinian Narrative: Civilization Versus Barbarism

In Argentinian culture, literature has always been linked to politics. In the 20th century this was no exception. During the 1900s, the Latin American country suffered many coups d'état, thus leading to the overthrow of democratic governments, installation of dictatorships, power struggles, discontent of the population in general, extreme poverty, among other issues. In literature this begins to be seen in the struggle between civilization vs. barbarism.

It is interesting then, to begin to investigate where the notion of the barbarian as a "monster" comes from in literature. The question is: why is he seen as an "other"? On the other hand, we find the system represented through civilization. It is seen as the norm, which comes to placate everything that is considered subversive solely because of its quality of being different.

Barbarism-Civilization. David Low (2010).

When it comes to these concepts, to talk about the barbarian, we generally speak of beings that have some type of physical deformity, disorder, extreme ugliness or dirt all over them. All issues that embody fear or rejection. Instead of using moral disorder as his sole utility, he counters it with his physical one. So, everything that contrasts with the human being considered correct is considered as 'other', which alters the model built by man. While he is shown almost like garbage, the civilized is shown as a fundamental part of the functioning of the laws, he is a distinguished professor, he is an incorruptible policeman or a virtuous student. Two short stories from the book Larvas (Elias Castelnuovo, 1959) will be used to analyze this concept.

The first is Mandinga, which speaks of a child who was born as a result of incest between his grandfather/father and his mother. Mandinga is described as a deformed being who lives in an orphanage with boys with similar attributes. Castelnuovo explains that at that time extraordinary importance was attached to the child's biological inheritance, looking for some kind of human degeneration, as it was called at the time, in his background. Something from which few people were saved. The protagonist is therefore an abominable person, not only from the outside but also from the inside. He manipulates, lies, and cheats on everyone, with the exception of his brother, who seems to be the only person he cares about. One day he dies, and the head of the orphanage wants to make Mandinga either cry, or just show some type of sadness around his loss, which is an impossible task. He was noted as someone without feelings. He eventually adopts a new boy as his next sibling, until he kills him and likewise shows no emotion at all. There was no guilt, pain, or remorse on his part. It is no coincidence that Mandinga is the name that represents the devil in some regions of South America.

The other story to analyze is called Guitarrita [tiny guitar]. This young boy already has a totally different tone than his partner. Both are in the same orphanage, which is why they are crossed by the same context, but the difference with Guitarrita is that he is described as a bum, a "tramp". He spends the whole day smoking cigarettes, lying down and doing nothing. Basically an outcast from what is socially acceptable, from production and from consumption. His character is a criticism of work and an ode to enjoyment, which contrasts with his careless and dirty appearance, denoting that way of managing life as negative.

Elias Castelnuovo (1893 - 1982) writer of Larvas.

As the author, Gloria Carmen Quispe (2020), explains in "Of monsters and monstrosities", these characters, in a society defined by policies of human degradation with different dictatorial acts, are the epitome of what they seek to destroy. How civilization condemns what it sees as monstrous, what it sees as barbaric. Anyone who is not born beautiful and good is left out of what is socially correct. The monster is, then, the metaphor of the excluded. In modernity, that is, at present, they try to include it because if the lower classes are not controlled, they are anarchic. It is preferable for the “civil” to have the “barbarism” inside, but restricted by those who have power, than free and outside, because the unknown, in the eyes of the society that capitalizes on the human, is dangerous.

The monster is shown as a figure of resistance, it serves to denounce the remains left by modern capitalism. In an ironic way, Argentine literature denounces the failures of an institution that, instead of being formative, promotes, produces and reproduces class differences. This category of the monstrous opens the gateway for the analysis of Argentine narrative texts from a political perspective, while thinking about the capitalist system trying to delimit free expression and individuality. The potentiality of the figure of the monster, as a subject beyond of the human, always in movement, never fixed in any place, knowing, meaning or value, brings us closer to a political-vital constellations that is linked to a resignified figure that defies limits of what is considered "correct" in Western culture.


Elias Castelnuovo. (1959). Larvas. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Cátedra Lisandro De La Torre.

Gloria Carmen Quispe. (2020). De “monstruos” y “monstruosidades”: formas del terror en la narrativa argentina actual. 2022, mayo 3, de TESEOPRESS Sourced from:

Image Sources

David Low (2010). Civilización y barbarie (Digital Illustration). Sourced from


May 05, 2022

Very interesting article and as a political scientist, ı believe that these are very crucial to understand nation's view and possible foreign policy's relation with social dynamics and culture.

Great article !

Replying to

Thank you so much!

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Antonella Cosentino

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