Every culture seems to have its National Writer or National Book. England has Shakespeare (and the US borrows him as the emblem of writerly perfection, at least until they decide that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel and stop dicking around), Italy has Dante (who had Virgil) and so forth. Moving to the Spanish-speaking world, the situation is similar. Spain has Cervante’s Don Quixote. Perú has the wonderful Mario Vargas Llosa and Colombia, García Márquez.
But what about Argentina, my own land?
Ask a foreigner and, if he knows a little about literature, he would say “Borges” without hesitation… but that isn’t necessarily true, even though I wish it were, since Borges represents everything that’s good about Argentine culture. Hell, they even passed him over for the Nobel Prize for the right reasons despite now being considered an embarrassing error on the part of the committee.
But there is one book that Argentines consider the national book, and it isn’t by Borges. It’s by a man called José Hernández, and it’s a poem. (Yes, we do poetry here sometimes).
Yes, the Martin Fierro (always referred to as “the” Martin Fierro, never just Martin Fierro) is the book that Borges pointed to when he said that Argentina has at least one work of great literature. Everyone else in the country can name it. It’s the ONLY work of Argentine literature that everyone can name, and would be the very first book most people would name.
Better still, it speaks to the very soul of the country. Not only to the people from the ranches and farms, whose life int eh mid 19th century it describes so well, but you can also, in the fatalist view and the celebration of suffering as the only real road to becoming a man, see the roots of the art form that most people would associate with the country: tango.
I recently quoted a line that said that only in Buenos Aires can sadness be turned into an art form… but it isn’t exactly true. Martin Fierro did it half a century earlier. It’s something I’ve always hated about the national character, that we dwell on the negative so much (I tend to look at positive stuff much more than negative, so I end up in endless arguments).
Other than being a paean to suffering, this book is actually quite good. Entertaining (he isn’t suffering from imaginary ills and persecutions, but very real ones), true to its time (PC crusaders will need to avert their gazes) and reflecting the politics of its time without bothering to be overtly political or naming names (something the great Dante would have been well advised to do).
It’s been used as a battle flag by everyone including anarchists, but it’s not really that kind of book. It’s more of an ode to the gaucho life and the kind of men it forms, and even ends on a reasonably hopeful note. The politics of the day are long gone, but we can still identify with the characters. And that is timeless.
Finally, a technical note. The Martin Fierro, like the Quixote (again, if you don’t want to look like an idiot in front of Spanish speakers, remember it’s “the Quixote”) before it, consists of two books. If you only read the first, you’ll miss a lot of what people are talking about when they mention it.
Anyway, grab a copy and get to know the Argentine soul.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who writes about the world, and the things that make everyone similar–as thrown into sharp relief by the things that make us different. If you like to read about people like you from different parts of the world dealing with problems that wouldn’t happen to you, then his science fiction and fantasy collection Off the Beaten Path will probably make you very happy. You can have a look at it here.